“We Want to Show the World We Are Now a Different City”
International journalists accredited to the LACNIC 19 event toured Medellin together with a representative of the local cooperation and investment agency to see first hand the city’s integrated transport system, the iconic Biblioteca España – an emblem of the Library Parks program – and Parque Explora, among other Medellin landmarks that have earned Medellin the title of “The World’s Most Innovative City”
By Pablo Izmirlian
Wednesday, 8 May, 10 am. Our meeting point is the Plaza Mayor square, a stunning convention and exhibition center opened in 2006 where events such as Colombiamoda (Colombia’s fashion week) are held. We are received by Camilo Monroy of the Agency for Cooperation and Investment for Medellin and the Metropolitan Area (ACI), who will be our guide on this tour of Medellin.
“The city is not the same as it was 15 or 20 years ago, the one we were shown on TV,” says Monroy. He describes that past of “drug trafficking, corruption and insecurity” as a “dark time.” “Pablo Escobar owned this city”, he says, then returns to our tour’s original idea and ultimate goal: “We want to show the world we are now a different city.”
After this brief introduction, we walk to a nearby Metroplus station. The new rapid transit bus system has been in operation since late 2011 and is part of the city’s Integrated Transport System, which also includes the Metro and Metrocable. The station’s doors open in perfect sync with those of the bus that has just stopped and hop get on.
It’s a warm morning, perhaps a few degrees above the pleasant average temperature Medellin enjoys throughout the year and which is the reason why it is known as “the city of eternal spring.” The landscape we can see through the windows and red brick buildings contrast with the green hills surrounding the city. The rich and daring contemporary architecture, especially the high-rise towers marking the skyline, are also worth noting.
We arrive at our first destination: the Ruta N building, home to a corporation created by the Mayor of Medellin, UNE (a telco), and EPM (Empresas Públicas de Medellín) to “promote the development of innovative technology-based businesses that will increase the city’s competitiveness and that of the region.” The building, another remarkable example of contemporary architecture with irregular facades combining glass, metal and vegetation, is one of the pillars of a project called Distrito Tecnológico Zona Norte.
In the words of Monroy, “the ruling class and the rich used to live towards the south, with their backs turned against the north.” “Today we are planning to build a science, innovation and technology center here,” he adds. “It’s where we want to take this city, its services and technology.” During the rest of the tour, the words “culture,” “education” and “social inclusion” are repeated over and over again as the central ideas behind the various programs that have made the city’s transformation possible.
Sheltered beneath a bus stop, an ad by the City of Medellin highlights Medellin’s recognition as the “World’s Most Innovative City,” an award presented in 2012 by The Wall Street Journal’s WSJ magazine, Citi, and the Urban Land Institute (ULI) after a selection process that included 200 cities.
A short walk brings us to Parque Explora, an interactive science museum and aquarium that opened in 2007, with a total of approximately 22,000 m2 and which this year expects to receive more than half a million visitors. “A park for the social appropriation of knowledge,” as defined by Andrés Ruiz, Head of Parque Explora’s Cultural Management and Academic Programming, who shows us around the facilities. Why an interactive museum? “You tend to remember more when you do things,” Ruiz tells us.
We begin at the aquarium, the largest freshwater aquarium in South America, home to species native to Colombia but also to species from other parts of the world. We also walk through Sala de la Mente, a pavilion dedicated to the brain and perception that allows visitors to test their cognitive abilities through different experiments. There is much more to see, but it is time to move on. In Medellin, the people “were afraid of the streets,” and one of the goals of Parque Explora is to “reclaim the public space and turn it into a meeting place,” says Ruiz. “Science ultimately serves as an excuse for achieving this goal.”
The subway takes us to a station where we switch to the Metrocable, a cable car service that is part of the public transport system, and head to the Santo Domingo neighborhood. The city has two Metrocable lines and is planning to build two more. There is also a third line which connects Santo Domingo with Parque Arvi and is a used for tourism. As our cable car climbs, Monroy points out another landmark: South America’s first public artificial grass rugby pitch.
An Icon for the Library Parks Program
In Santo Domingo we hear the typical bustle of children as they leave school. It becomes clear why just a minute earlier our guide commented that “the city’s topography makes it difficult to reach certain neighborhoods.” Built on a hillside, this neighborhood is known for its steep and narrow streets which become even narrower as they twist and turn and lose themselves among the buildings.
As we near Biblioteca España and the three black monoliths that symbolize Medellin’s transformation, we are approached by three “guide children,” neighborhood children who, in a routine that appears to have been studied and practiced hundreds of times, tell the library’s story and earn a well-deserved tip.
As we enter the building, we once again hear words such as “culture,” “education,” “recreation,” “meeting place,” and “social inclusion,” as we learn about the mission of this building and the others that are part of the library parks program. More than libraries, these are true civic centers with meeting spaces, an exhibition hall, a computer room, a nursery, and a media library. According to the results so far, it is also a key element in the pacification of the most problematic neighborhoods. Biblioteca España “is the icon for library parks,” we are told. “Nine library parks have been build, but this was the first one.”
On our way back we are amazed at the neatness of the subway trains and platforms, as well as by the fact that PA announcements are delivered in both Spanish and English. Perhaps this is another sign that the city takes its bid to host the 2018 Youth Olympic Games very seriously and therefore takes care of even the smallest detail. Medellin is competing against Buenos Aires and Glasgow and will know whether its bid is successful on the 4th of July, during a ceremony that will take place in Lausanne, Switzerland.
If Medellin triumphs it will be yet another example of “berraquera paisa,” as a fierce spirit is called in this part of the world and which is attributed to the topographical difficulties the region’s inhabitants have always had to face. But Monroy, our guide, is not satisfied with this explanation as the sole reason behind the rebirth of the city. In his opinion, this peace, innovation and development is the result of both berraquera and joint work, and he highlights the role of the triad made up by “academia, private sector and government,” which in Medellin has proved more than effective not only for improving indexes and statistics but also for generating a true sense of belonging and pride in its people.
Medellin on line
Medellin City Portal
The city’s official website
Corporation that promotes the development of innovative technology-based businesses
Plaza Mayor Medellin
Convention and exhibition centre, a reference in Colombia
Interactive science museum and largest freshwater aquarium in South America
Medellin Pubic Library System
The library network’s official website, with information on the Parks Library program